Len Tregonning, 2013
Image: James Henry
Source: Museum Victoria
I was born in Yallourn, a small place just outside Morwell what people call Gippsland these days. As a young fella we grew up in bean paddocks, pea paddocks and also lived at Lake Tyers for a short period. But then government brought in policies of removing those of mixed ancestry so we basically lived with family and moved around a lot, through the mountains, along the coast, but mainly in our own Country, which is all Gippsland area.
One of the best memories was when we were all down on a place called Wuk Wuk which is just outside Bairnsdale. In those days we used to live in a hay shed, maybe 15, 20 people – kids, families – and the Aunts and Uncles would go out picking beans. It was great. Just all yarns and noises and people coming and going, you know, it was real family. Wouldn't be just our family, might be other families moving through ‘cause a lot of people were transient.
We had the beautiful river and just being kids, diving for tortoises in the long reed and picking the mussels. It was lovely and pretty free. Unfortunately they put in a dam system further up so the molluscs died off and the tortoise disappeared. It's a bit of a shame. When I took my daughter back to show her, it was very different.
I've been lucky. Our family, no matter what we get copped with, we've all just identified. That was instilled into us – you are from here. People will call you a ‘mission-breed’. People will put you down, but just be proud of who you are. It's really strange how people relate... you can be Sri Lankan, Indian, Asian, oh yeah. But when you say you’re Aboriginal, they say, which part? Growing up we copped all the negatives, had my pushbike run over, all these nasty things. Now I'm pushing 60 people go, oh, you don't look Aboriginal. You can't be Aboriginal. But my answer to them is you don't actually look Australian. Which part are you?
I'm part of the Stolen Generation. I was forcibly removed under the policy of assimilation. We lived under the care of a policeman for two years. We lived in his out house, then sent to a boarding school for four and a half years. That was just before the ‘67 referendum. I actually went back and asked the school where I'd been locked up for my records and the only thing they could find about their student that was placed in their care was oh, Form 3, very good at history. No other student records. So I didn't exist in four and a half years in that boarding school. I'll investigate that one day.
I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the Yulendj members for over 30 years in other roles and different capacities, as community members. In my case it's a real opportunity. There's people there that I didn't realise were my relatives' relatives so I've met another line of family which I didn't know. This is part of my family so this is a personal thing I've gotten out of it but the opportunity to educate non-Aboriginals about this history of this part of the world is quite unique. There's so much they need to learn about this country and its history.
Non-Aboriginal culture says we come from Africa, we come from fish, we come from Mars, but in our oral history it's said that everyone came from the south. We're still here. Educating how people survived many many thousands of years in this climate. People in Victoria didn't run around semi-naked chasing Skippy through the sunset -- you'd freeze to death in the middle of a Victorian winter! Everyone wore possum skin or kangaroo cloaks.
I was a work experience student at the museum in 1975 in anthropology with a man called Alan West. It was part of my placement when we were the first Aboriginals to go to a university in Victoria. When I was growing up we were told we were uneducated and uncivilised and all of that. But now that's all changing, where our people are actively involved in doing things for everybody. And now more and more people are supporting Aboriginal culture rather than erasing it. By seeing here it is, I can go and tell my nephews and other family members so they can reconnect themselves back to parts of culture they might not have an understanding of. To see the real objects, nothing can replace that. It's better than going to see Tutankhamun. I have seen him but he didn't excite me as much as a Koorie shield does or a boomerang because they're from this area. These are items made by maybe some of my long-distant relatives, my ancestors.
People also need to be aware of some of the collection practices. Someone might come up to a certain object and it's got a farmer's name on it and that farmer collected it from somewhere. But this wasn't in the last ten years or twenty years, these were collected 150 years ago. Even the people who collected them and looked after them aren't here anymore. It's important to recognise the errors at the time of when those people were going out collecting, but people have got to realise if they didn't collect them we wouldn't be looking at them, so there's a kind of shared history as well. Maybe in another ten years a lot of Victorian communities have their own keeping places in museums and then there'll be that other journey for the museum itself of repatriating some of those items back to the communities. If people didn't collect them we wouldn't be dealing with this history.
Down home we lost all our community spears and boomerangs off our hall –they've disappeared because someone took them. If they were stored in a collection place where they would be for future generations, people would be able to look at them today. There's always going to be that intellectual property challenge, who owns those things, but I think it's important to recognise the keeping places. It's not about me as an individual, it's not about my family or brothers and sisters or cousins, it's about the next five generations. They're the ones who will be coming in looking at these objects and might say, wow, our great-great-grandparents did this. We're doing stuff that 30 or 40 years ago wasn't even envisaged.